You would not expect La Repubblica, a left-of-centre Italian newspaper to break a story about Anglicans, but it has. A long interview with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of the Anglican Communion – a worldwide network of churches – at least partly answers some mysteries.
One small one: contrary to what the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, told US media there was no secret wedding ceremony a few days before her official wedding ceremony to Prince Harry.
But the biggest reveal – for many Christians – will be the non-answer Welby gives to Repubblica when asked about same sex blessings. (Eternity does not endorse the Archbishops position, but is simply reporting it in full.) “Archbishop, recently in “The Spectator” you quoted Hans Küng with the phrase “to stay the same when everything else around you changes is not to stay the same”. Which brings us to quite a different topic: the question of gay marriage. This is a universal question, which is so challenging to all the churches. Recently, after Vatican’s decision to bar gay union blessings, there were big protests coming out. People are leaving churches, especially the younger generations. Your church has embraced the project “Living in love and faith”, and next year is the decisive one on that. But can you personally imagine now the day when homosexual people will get this blessing by your Church?”
To which the Archbishop responds.
“I’m not going to answer the question very properly, this one. We’re in the middle of an incredibly complex and rather delicate process. I’m simply not going to answer that question because it would prejudge where we might get to, and that would mean that we’d have a lot more trouble getting there. The outcome of “living in love and faith” in the Church of England… remember, they’re already gay marriages and blessings of gay marriages in the Anglican Church in what’s called the Episcopal Church, the Anglicans in North America. That led to a church’s moderate sized group going off. There’s also in our provinces in Scotland, Brazil, and the United States. So it’s happening in parts of the Anglican Church where we don’t have the same global single view of this.”
[Eternity note: here the Archbishop has referred to a sizeable group of Episcopalians leaving to form the Anglican Church of North America following the election of a gay bishop. In Brazil the evangelical Anglican Church in Brazil broke away from the liberal Anglican Episcopal church. In Scotland the Episcopal Church accepts gay marriage and New Zealand the Anglican Church accepts same sex blessings, causing Anglicans to leave to form new networks. All these groups are linked in the conservative GAFCON network, which several Australian dioceses (regions) recognise. “Living in love and faith” is the name of large consultation exercise the Church of England is conducting about human sexuality. ]
“The key thing, it seems to me, is whether you think that you are defined as a human being: by your sexuality or by your faith in Jesus Christ? My lived experience of finding a few years ago that my father wasn’t my father is that where I find my identity is not in DNA or in sexuality or anything else: it is in Christ, it is in who loved me, and I am loved by God. It is essential that the Church demonstrates to each other and to gay people that God is love.”
“There may be different views about how you express love. We know now that the Church is quite clear… because you love someone, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right in that way. I mean, if you’re married and you fall in love with someone else, that doesn’t make you right. But we need to start by demonstrating in a way, that we’ve not done over history, that LGBTQI people are loved, are welcomed by God, find their identity in God. Then we have to work out what we do when reasonably they turn around from us. There will be differences of opinion within the church. The difficulty over the next 18 months is working out what our answer is and whether as a Church we can continue to love one another when we disagree on the answer. So I’m deliberately not answering the question about whether I can see gay blessings happening in the future, because we’ve yet to decide that. But I am saying that the biggest test is that we go through this discussion largely loving one another and caring for one another and pointing to God as love and welcoming one another.”
Don’t you find the Catholic Church more dogmatic on such issues?
“I’m not going to criticise the Catholic Church. There’s an old saying of Winston Churchill’s about the British army: the British army always does the right thing but only after trying all the wrong ones. You could say the same about the Church of England. I’m not sure why it always ends up with the right answer, but it certainly tries all the wrong ones first. For literally 30 years, we produced paper after paper, short reflections often very thoughtful, taken around about 2000, but which never really made any progress. So we set out in 2018, after a debate that was particularly painful in our General Synod, the Parliament of the Church, we would set out to look at the question in four ways. First, in its biblical: what does the Bible teach us? Secondly, in the theological: what is the nature of God and what modern and our understanding of philosophy teach us?”
“So what does church history, and particularly the patristic period, teach us about how we disagree and what we disagree on and where the lines are that you draw and say we can’t go any further to discriminate and force the world to the human and biological sciences in the most modern form teach us? And this is being brought together in this book, “Living in Love and Faith”, which I have read very carefully. Behind there is a huge amount of work: half a million words from scientists and theologians condensed down into 483 pages, very carefully thought through. It doesn’t give answers, it simply says here is our best understanding at present and now the church has to assemble what the spirit of God is saying to us. My caution is always that this, for very good reasons, because it’s so fundamental to what you are as a human being in many people’s thinking, that this can lead to great judgmentalism and great cruelty. So that’s where we’re going with “Living in love and faith”. But I’m not going criticise Catholics, we are not Catholics, they do a lot of their thinking in private: some families, when they have an argument, they go into separate rooms and sulk. Other families, when they have an argument, they stand in the background garden and shout at each other and all the neighbours hear. The Anglicans are of the second group. We do all our arguing in public and it makes us look quite argumentative sometimes.”
The conservative anglican.ink news site has given this story the headline “Canterbury seeks an agreement to disagree over gay marriage within the Anglican world” which while it may irritate the Archbishop’s press office, is apposite.
If ‘Living in Life and Faith” the Church of England’s consultation about human sexuality results in same sex blessings being recognised in the English church, then the Archbishop will be keen to have the more conservative parts of the Anglican communion, (which has a conservative majority), to stay in the network and disagree. (If the decision is “not yet” then the Archbishop will face the pushback from the US-based The Episcopalian Church.)
The well-connected Anglican priest/journalist George Conger prefaced their reporting of the archbishop’s answers with this comment: “In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated he could not answer a direct question as to whether the Church of England would ever bless same-sex marriages in light of the on-going “Living in Love and Faith” project. However his hope was the Anglican Communion would find a way to live together in disagreement over this issue — placing its emphasis on “largely loving one another and caring for one another and pointing to God as love and welcoming one another.”
Trying to hold Anglicanism together over this issue is the Archbishop’s strategy. The conservatives having set up a parallel network, GAFCON (the name comes from the Global Anglican Futures Conference), have a flexible strategy, setting up new churches where national church members of the Anglican Communion are liberal, while asserting that they are after all the majority of Anglicans.
In a somewhat parallel situation the United Methodist Church, with a similarly global spread like the Anglicans, appears to be on the brink of a split over human sexuality. Their General conference which is set to vote on the split has now been delayed twice by Covid. The name of the new church that the conservatives will form was recently announced: the Global Methodist Church.